On Congressional Country Club's Blue Course, there's a snake — a non-dues-paying member, no doubt — that lives in the creek beside the sixth green. "He's tucked in those rocks," club pro John Lyberger said during our spin around the property Monday.
From what I've seen, the snake will be the least of the players' worries when the U.S. Open returns to Bethesda next month. Congressional's remodeled par-71 layout, which will measure anywhere from 7,200 to 7,300 yards, has more than enough fangs of its own. In fact, the USGA had better have a few extra medical personnel on the premises, just in case.
Of course, you can say that about any U.S. Open. The event always has had a certain Marquis de Sade aspect to it. The fairways are tight. The rough is thick. The greens are fast and slippery. Unless you've brought your A game, the Open basically is like having your wisdom teeth removed without an anesthetic (by a dentist who shouts "Whoop!" like Chris Berman every time he yanks one out).
In 1997, when our national championship last visited Congressional, the winner, Ernie Els, finished 4 under — and actually broke par each of the last three rounds. You can forget about anybody doing that this year. The course is an absolute ...
"Challenge," Lyberger suggested.
That wasn't really the word I had in mind. And I doubt it's the word the players will utter when uphill pitch shots roll back to their feet (and assorted other disasters destroy their hopes). But this being a family newspaper, it'll have to suffice.
Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, did throw the field one bone. He turned No. 6, a wicked 475-yard par-4 back in '97, into a 555-yard par-5 that, snake permitting, is very reachable in two. Don't be deceived, though. Almost every other change — and there are plenty of them — makes the course even more merciless.
For instance, after the AT&T National in 2009, Congressional redid all the greens, put in a state-of-the-art drainage system and replaced the Poa annua bluegrass with bentgrass, which is deeper-rooted and better suited to this climate. Granted, the ball should roll truer on the new putting surfaces — Poa can be bumpy — but the surfaces also will be firmer and faster (read: more treacherous).
As Lyberger put it: "Every subtlety in these greens is really going to come out and show itself." And there's nothing that can kill a good round faster than subtlety.
In addition, there are eight new tee boxes, each adding length and forcing you to play the holes differently than in the past. Worse, "they're slightly off-center," Lyberger said. "So the days of just bangin' it out there and hitting the ball as far as you can are gone. This is really designed to force the players to shape their shots [around trees and other obstacles]. You'll notice, too, that most of tees are facing you toward some bunker or feature."
Yes, I did notice that. Lovely.
Then there's the sand in the bunkers. That's also new. It's softer and thicker than the previous stuff, according to Lyberger, and makes it hard to put spin on the ball. So if you're buried behind the 10th green, trying to get up and down from well below the hole — with the putting surface sloping away in the direction of the pond — good luck getting your ball to stop near the cup (or even on dry land).
And that's a hole, let's not forget, that didn't exist in '97. It's a replacement for the old par-3 finishing hole, which ran the other way across the pond. So in the first or second round this year (depending on which day he tees off on the back nine), every player will begin with the nightmare-inducing No. 10 — a 218-yard iron shot over water to a shallow front-to-back green backed by deep bunkers. How's that for a hello?
"They say a dry ball is a happy ball ... until you hit it over this green," said Lyberger, looking up at the hole from one of the Rear Sand Pits.
Then the player will move on to 11, which is only the most difficult hole of the bunch. It's almost cruelly long — a 494-yard par 4 — and has a skinny, scary green protected by a pond. As if this weren't enough, the fairway has been nudged over to the right, closer to a stream that runs down the side. On top of that, two bunkers that used to catch drives (and keep them from getting wet) have been eliminated. So now, if a tee ball drifts right, it's much more likely to wind up in the drink (especially since, as a bonus, the fairway tilts sharply in that direction).
Oh, and have I mentioned that 18, Congressional's signature hole — with the clubhouse in the background and the peninsula green that doused Tom Lehman's chances in '97 — has been stretched 50 yards to 523? Try making a par 4 there with a one-shot lead, the championship at stake and your knees clattering like castanets.
Yup, this Open course has it all - everything but a greenskeeper named Igor. The USGA has taken a tough, classic course and, in its diabolical way, made it even tougher. The sign at the entrance says, "Congressional Country Club," but maybe, for the week in question, it should say, "I'd turn back if I were you."
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